The Mediant Pause and Grammatical Ecstasy

Most of us know that there is, traditionally, a slight pause at the mediant cadence when singing a Psalm.

Occasionally, someone, somewhere, will ask what its purpose or origin is, which is a perfectly valid question. The obvious answer is the structure of Psalm verses into two parts, which "rhyme" on a rhetorical, rather than an aural, level.

My favorite example of this comes from Noel Jones, whose demonstration runs:

1 The earth is large
2 The earth is humongous large


1 The earth is large
2 The earth is a small part of the entire solar system


1 Where do people live
2 People live on the earth and temporarily on the Space Station

This of course all makes sense and explains the slight (or not so slight) pause that is supposed to occur between the first half of a Psalm verse and its mate.

What it does not explain, and what I have always had trouble explaining, is the contrast with the "it follows hard upon" nature of successive verses. If you need to pause between two halves of a single thought, shouldn't you also pause between two separate thoughts?

Of course, any of us who have ever chanted Psalms to a Psalm tone (Roman, Anglican, or Otherwise) all pretty much know that you don't do that- you pick up the next verse swiftly. How swiftly exactly, just like how much pausing exactly, is a matter of personal taste and acoustic judgment, of course- but the general principle seems to be universally accepted.

However- it is apparently non-obvious that this should be the case. And any of you who have ever had to teach Psalm singing to a choir unfamiliar with the idiom know exactly how non-obvious it is. I've tried explaining the practice a couple different ways, but they all boil down to either "that's the way it's done" or "that's the way we're doing it."

Personally, I never thought it needed much of an explanation- to me, it is more aesthetically pleasing to do it this way. But that, of course, raises another question: why is it more aesthetically pleasing?

I hadn't thought about any of this for a while, but then I was reading some poetry the other evening- Lamia, by John Keats. I was (of course) reading it outloud.

What I particularly noticed was a metrical effect by which the grammatical sense and the poetic meter do not line up precisely. That is to say, many clauses span line breaks in a way that causes the reader to find a balance between the grammatical sense and the poetic rhythm. If you try to read it line-by-line (like a Dr. Seuss book) the sense is almost completely lost. On the other hand, if you re-orient in favor of the grammatical structure alone, the music of the poetry is lost, and you might as well be reading prose.


Free as the air, invisibly, she strays
About these thornless wilds; her pleasant days
She tastes unseen; unseen her nimble feet
Leave traces in the grass and flowers sweet;
From weary tendrils, and bow'd branches green,
She plucks the fruit unseen, she bathes unseen:
And by my power is her beauty veil'd
To keep it unaffronted, unassail'd
By the love-glances of unlovely eyes,
Of Satyrs, Fauns, and blear'd Silenus' sighs.
Pale grew her immortality, for woe
Of all these lovers, and she grieved so
I took compassion on her, bade her steep
Her hair in weird syrops, that would keep
Her loveliness invisible, yet free
To wander as she loves, in liberty.

It strikes me that this gives the work a certain kind of ecstatic breathlessness that pulls the speaker forward through the text. In Lamia, the effect is erotic, even doxological.

It can of course be used to humorous effect as well:

Does any blight or cursed venom
Have a bite that's worse than them in
whom no happy triffling matter
fails to launch an angry pratter
blusterbunding out the gullet,
of dispar'ging comments, full? It
really is an aweful mir'cle
how the purtin prudy jerk'll
blab displeasure, frown on happy
thoughts and spread his brand of crappi-
ness where e'er his gazing lands,
confident he understands.

-from On Fussbudgets, AMW

And of course, most of you will know already that Shakespeare's plays are also written in a similar fashion, and that one of the chief technical skills required of a great Shakespearean actor is the ability to balance the sense and the sound in such a way as neither of them are lost to the other.

At any rate, whether for a humorous purpose or an ecstatic one, this effect pulls the reader forward, onward through the text.

After reading the Keats poem, I had been giving some thought to this device, and was starting to crystallize some ideas regarding Psalm singing when I had another discovery: this tension between grammatical structure and rhythmic structure was idiomatic of Greek epic poetry, and its Latin successors. Indeed, it was considered by the classical rhetoricians as being a mark of good style.

From the Wikipedia article on Dactyllic Hexameter (which makes excellent reading in its entirety):

The Homeric poems arrange words in the line so that there is an interplay between the metrical ictus — the first long syllable of each foot — and the natural, spoken accent of words. If these two features of the language coincide too frequently, they overemphasize each other and the hexameter becomes sing-songy. Nevertheless, some reinforcement is desirable so that the poem has a natural rhythm. Balancing these two considerations is what eventually leads to rules regarding the correct placement of the caesura and breaks between words; in general, word breaks occur in the middle of metrical feet, while accent and ictus coincide only near the end of the line.


In the first few feet of the meter, meter and stress were expected to clash, while in the final few feet they were expected to resolve and coincide — an effect that gives each line a natural "dum-ditty-dum-dum" ("shave and a haircut") rhythm to close. Such an arrangement is a balance between an exaggerated emphasis on the metre — which would cause the verse to be sing-songy — and the need to provide some repeated rhythmic guide for skilled recitation.

In modern English poetry (and, to my knowledge, most other languages) the natural accent of the words is (generally) supposed to match the meter of the poetry- otherwise you're not actually writing to the meter of the poetry (because there is nothing but the words themselves to form the meter).

By contrast- since the Greek poetic tradition was a sung one, there was a melody (and, perhaps, something like a rhythm) which enforced the poetic meter, giving the words something to interact with, whether by contrast or by agreement.

In modern, non-musical poetry, the only clear device with which the text can interact with consistently is the line and rhyme structure. It's possible to also linguistically subvert metrical structure as well, but that generally can only be done in a longer work once the "true" meter is well-established (e.g. Longfellow's Hiawatha) or in seemingly rigid, often humorous, forms (limericks, etc.).

So we have these two different poetic techniques - one from classical Greek and one from modern English - both of which share a similar effect, that of drawing the reader (reciter) forward through the text rather than allowing each line to rise up and die as a series of single thoughts. In their own way, they both serve to lengthen the attention of the reciter and listener.

Then (goodness!) I discovered another example- this time in prose.

I have recently been reading Catherine Pickstock's After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (an amazing book which comes highly recommended by Jeffrey Tucker).

The "astonishing thesis" of the book (according to one of the back-cover blurbs) is that "[o]utside liturgy, outside the logic of the Mass, there can be no meaning." The grammar and vocabulary of this book is wholly academic- it is much more like a doctoral dissertation than it is like a book for the (even well-educated) laity (in the professional sense). But, its subject matter deals highly with language- with the tension and harmonization of written language and spoken language, the tension between what I refer to as the poetic and the philosophical. Moreover, the themes are (as you would expect) ecstasy, doxology, passion, and the pulling onwards of the soul by divine beauty.

I was stunned, then, when I found how rapidly I was consuming the text. I described it to Jeffrey as "breathless" and "ecstatic." I truly did not expect this, since the first sentence of the book is such a collection of post-modern, philosophical polysyllabatory that it seemed like it would take every ounce of my attention, and a handy web browser open to Google, to figure out what on earth this brilliant professor was getting at:

In the first Part of this essay, I trace the emergence of the unliturgical world, the lineaments of whose struggle to quell the agonies of obsolescence and desire can be seen in the lateral consolations of universalised strongholds, cities, whose citizens are regulated either visibly via military force or written contract, or invisibly, via the dissemination of unquestioned assumptions regarding the nature of reality and the human subject.

Yeah- I mean- I basically know what she just said, but I had to look up "lineaments," and I'm still not sure what makes the consolations "lateral."

And yet, after about a page or two (and a detour of having to read The Phaedrus of Plato), I found myself flying- no... being flung, headlong, through the text. How?

Well, besides the fascinating subject matter, Pickstock uses a prose version of the same techniques I describe above: Paragraph-long, complex thoughts and compound ideas are often delivered in single, not-quite-run-on sentences which, peppered with commas, provide ample internal room for breath-taking and thoughtful pausing, so that one never quite feels, as one might, winded. But then, towards the end of sentences, the last bit between the final comma and the full stop, the clause tends to be shorter. This, you'll note, allows the reader a chance to breathe before the end of the sentence and almost forces an elision between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. Finally- and this is the part I first noticed- the following sentence after the semi-elision tends to begin with a shorter word or phrase, a "thus" or a "therefore," followed, as you would expect, with a comma- a sort of mediant (or submediant, I guess) pause, which has been displaced from its usual position at the full stop.

Which, finally, brings me to Psalm singing and the contrast between the mediant pause and the lack of a pause at the end of each verse.

In each of the techniques I described above, there is a sort of displacement or tension: two different ways of structuring content are played against each other. And in each case, the effect is one of moving the text forward, or otherwise quickening the pace, while still providing enough temporal space for an adequate understanding of the text's meaning.

This is an effect which, at least with the hindsight of tradition, seems valuable in communal Psalm recitation. The sheer volume of Psalms to be recited, along with the desire to both get through the text quickly and also meditate on it, indicates a need for some version of this effect. Moreover, as I have mentioned above, there is a certain ecstatic, or doxological, quality to this device, which makes it all the more suitable to monastic prayer.

Now, in Psalm singing, the obvious candidates for "two different structures" are the melody and the text. However, given that Psalm-singing developed as a communal prayer form, and not as a musical performance, the texts and the melodies need to reinforce each other. If they were to be set against each other (as they sometimes are in the melismatic solo chants of the Mass Proper) they would become too difficult and unsuitable for group recitation.

As should be obvious by now (given the volume of writing I have now devoted to a fairly minor point of liturgical practice), the Psalm-singing version of this same effect is precisely the contrast between the pause at the mediant cadence and the lack of a seemingly-required one at the end of each verse.

Think about how a Psalm would function if it was sung in a more obvious way:

THE LORD is my shepherd; [short pause]
therefore can I lack nothing.

[longer pause]

He shall feed me in a green pasture, [short pause]
and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.

[longer pause]

He shall convert my soul, [short pause]
and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.

[longer pause]

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; [short pause]
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.

Just thinking about this makes me bored.

By shifting a portion of the length of the longer pause into the break at the half-verse, and eliding the verses, the overall recitation is shortened considerably, while leaving plenty of empty space for meditation on the text.

THE LORD is my shepherd;
[long pause] therefore can I lack nothing. ||
He shall feed me in a green pasture,
[long pause] and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort. ||
He shall convert my soul,
[long pause]and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake. ||
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
[long pause] for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me. ||

Moreover, the emptiness needed for meditation comes not after a complete thought is given, but rather in the liminal space between question and answer, between call and response. This provides a platform for the individual to consider their own response. Once the canonical response is provided, a new idea is suggested, and meditated on, and then completed and followed immediately with another new idea.

This mirrors the structure of the Christian life; we are not called to absorb fine theological ideas and then come to a state of otherworldly repose. Rather, each "revelation," each truth, each moment of sacramental grace gives us space to consider our own response, but our own response is not the final word. If we wait within the empty space provided by God's grace, we will be given the true response, the "correct answer" (as it were) and, like a monk practiced in the recitation of the Psalms, we will find that over time, our own response and the true response will align ever more closely. We will also find, though it seems contrary to the more obvious human logic of "religion," that each of these truths, these responses to God's grace are not opportunities for rest and repose but are, instead, launching points for a continuous calling, as we are drawn forward (or flung headlong) into the mystery of God and the active prayer of the call of Christ.

Originally appeared at Chant Cafe on 19 September 2013.
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